This is piece is a guest post written by Jess Cleeves, who served on the IDA Board of Directors from 2018-2020.
My favorite task as an IDA board member was reviewing applications for International Dark Sky Places (IDSP). Learning how people are coming together to protect dark and starry places from light pollution is inspiring. I live in Utah, the global leader in IDSP density; my personal stargazing has certainly benefitted from this essential IDA program. When COVID-19 halted the human world, however, my beloved nearby IDSPs were unreachable. Traveling through rural communities is a transmission threat; I couldn’t justify my selfish desire to seek natural night. I stayed home, the moon and planets on my “quaran-team,” the stars among those I yearned to see in-person.
Close to Home, Far From Stars
As COVID-19 kept me home-bound, I experienced what many of my neighbors always have. For people working multiple jobs, historically excluded from equitable education and healthcare opportunities, or negotiating immigration challenges, accessing IDSPs is impossible, pandemic or not. There are thousands of children in the Salt Lake Valley, as in cities around the world, who have not – and will not ever – see the Milky Way.
American tycoon Warren Buffett said, “Only when the tide goes out, do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” Mr. Buffett’s words illustrate a painful reality; that abnormal and universally challenging circumstances reveal those who were barely surviving during the “good times.” COVID revealed how many lack access to reliable internet and fresh produce, how tenuous employment and social safety nets are for millions. Similarly, the past year invites us, dark sky defenders, to acknowledge how much of humanity is skinny-dipping in an inescapable sea of artificial light. At first, I assumed this disparate access as simply urban v. rural. A recent study, however, notes that in both rural and urban US places, light pollution disproportionately impacts poor people and people of color. Knowing what we know about light pollution’s human health impacts alone demands that we name over-lighting trends as an issue of environmental justice, and that we prioritize addressing light pollution in historically underserved communities worldwide.
Maslow v. Meaning
A city councilman once asked me “My constituents’ children are hungry. Why should they care about light pollution?” It’s a fair question, especially according to Maslow’s assertion that basic needs must be met before someone can achieve a meaningful life. Perhaps meaning’s more complex than that, however. Perhaps meaning, a sense of connection to something greater than ourselves, is what can get us through our hardest, leanest times. Perhaps those with privilege enough to be presently employed and healthy can use that privilege to improve everyone’s quality of life. Maybe we all deserve to look up and wonder.
Access to the cosmos is a human right – no matter how marginalized someone’s humanity. IDA’s IDSP has been instrumental in protecting already-dark places and raising awareness about the need for that protection. The pandemic invites IDA to pivot along with the rest of us; if access to natural night is a human right, we must now turn our attention to the places – and people – who are most impacted.